Cornerback Montae Pitts, a redshirt sophomore, picked off a pair of passes and made several other nice plays in the teamwork parts of practice to earn praise from defensive coordinator and secondary coach Gene Chizik. Pitts is trying to fight off a challenge for the starting job from newcomer David Irons, Jr. and Kevin Hobbs, the walk-on who made seven starts last fall.
The experiment of moving senior Jay Ratliff inside to defensive tackle from end is off to a rousing start. He was a standout in one-on-one blocking drills vs. offensive linemen and he continued to apply pressure in the teamwork drills. Ratliff, a former tight end who has battled injury problems throughout his career, is running first team on the depth chart in the spot handled by Spencer Johnson last year. However, Johnson is one of three starters on the defensive front who graduated.
"His first two steps are unbelievable," Coach Tommy Tuberville said after watching Ratliff on Thursday. "If he can just keep his shoulder healthy, continue to learn, he is going to be a load inside. He moves the pile back and really forces the ball outside a lot.
"Last year, with Spencer, we were a little more lateral," Tuberville noted. "I think he is going to give us a chance to get a little more penetration on the tight end side."
Jay Ratliff battles offensive guard Danny Lindsey in a one-on-one drill on Thursday.
Pitts made one of the best plays of the day on a deep sideline route pass from Jason Campbell that was intended for Ben Obomanu. The defensive back found an extra gear and ran down the pass, pivoted and made a nice interception. His other interception was on a pass from Campbell that was deflected by Karibi Dede, the former safety who is working at weakside linebacker.
"The fourth day of practice was a good day," Coach Tuberville said. "We didn't do quite as much team as we did yesterday. We worked more on fundamentals.
"We started on our blitz periods, putting in blitz on offense, and it shows we need a lot of work. Tomorrow (Friday) we will polish and come out in shells and get ready for the scrimmage on Saturday morning. The scrimmage should start somewhere around 10 o'clock. If it rains, we are still going to go. We might have to hold off a little while. Then Sunday we will take off."
Saturday's scrimmage is scheduled to last 150 plays and Tuberville said he wants to choose a backup quarterback based on what happens in the workout at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"We will come out and put a few new things tomorrow, but most of it will be offense on one side and defense on the other side polishing things what we have already worked on the first four days," Tuberville said. "Hopefully, we can show some improvement on Saturday."
After watching video of Wednesday's practice, the head coach said his team needs work. "It looked like we were in slow motion because of all the new things we put in on offense. Guys were still thinking about what they were doing. They were not coming off the ball or not running the right tracks on running plays. The quarterbacks were struggling a little with reads, but that is typical of the first full day of rush for the quarterback instead of standing back there for five seconds and not having someone run right at you.
"The running game looks pretty good," Tuberville said. "What we have done in that area is cut back instead of add. We are doing a few technique things a little differently. The passing game is what is going to take a while. Defense, we are pretty much basic right now. We are working on about four coverages. Today, when we started man coverages, we saw the younger guys spinning a little bit."
In other notes from Thursday's practice:
*Doug Langenfeld, who suffered a slight concussion in Wednesday's practice, was held out of action. Tuberville says he hopes the senior will be available for Saturday's scrimmage.
*Langenfeld's fellow defensive linemen had to stay after practice and do "artificial grass drills" with the coaching staff not happy with the group's overall hustle from the previous day's practice. The linebackers were invited to join the post-practice session.
*The quarterbacks also stayed after practice, but were there for a different purpose. They were long tossing, an exercise designed to build arm strength. New offensive coordinator Al Borges has been calling for a significant number of long passes in Auburn's first four practices this spring.
*At the other side of the practice field complex, Hugh Nall kept the offensive linemen after practice for some up close and personal time with the team's blocking sled.
Overall, the secondary had its best day of practice this spring. In addition to a pair of interceptions by Pitts, safety Will Herring picked off a Jason Campbell pass and redshirt freshman safety Eric Brock had a near miss on a pass by Brandon Cox.
*Ben Grubbs, who made the conversion from tight end to offensive left guard to start the spring, worked with the first team ahead of Jonathan Palmer. Tuberville said that those two should have a good competition for the number one spot all spring. "He has been playing real well," Tuberville said of Grubbs.
*Tuberville said a key to the offensive line for 2004 is keeping junior tackle Marcus McNeill healthy. He has been impressive the first four days of spring and his chronic back problems have not slowed him like they did last year when his practice time was limited.
Kenny Irons runs the football at Thursday's practice.
*The most interesting play of the 11 on 11 work featured one with backups on the field. Kenny Irons, the transfer running back from South Carolina, showed his speed by breaking free into the secondary. After making a pair of defenders miss downfield, he looked to be going the distance for a TD but was tackled by his older brother David. "Kenny is rather quick and looks good," Tuberville said. Irons will redshirt this fall under transfer rules and will be a junior in 2005.
*Middle linebacker Lemarcus Rowell missed Thursday's practice when he re-aggravated an old an ankle sprain.